Explaining the Enneagram, Part Two: Countertypes and Health

Let’s start by admitting something: the Enneagram is always evolving, and that makes teaching the “true” Enneagram a bit hard. One of the stumbling blocks to writing this post is that different authors have some different perspectives, particularly on the countertypes. There are three basic reasons why people might disagree, on the Enneagram or just about anything else.

  1. Two people have different perspectives on the same truth. The Enneagram was constructed in a school of interfaith philosophers, with some later additions by psychologists and anthropologists. There are modern writers who are Christians, atheists, new age neopagans, agnostics and people who are constantly questioning their beliefs. If you pick up one book, they might focus heavily on the connection between the Enneagram and the nine sins (the seven deadly sins plus fear and deceit). Another might avoid these terms like they have bedbugs, and instead focus on terms from evolutionary psychology and attachment theory. Another might avoid both, and talk about mindfulness and illusions. As different as these approaches sound, when you look past the jargon and listen carefully, it’s clear that they are just rephrasing the same concepts, like resetting Romeo and Juliet in New York to make West Side Story.
  2. Someone has information that someone else lacks. Because the Enneagram tries to describe things that are hard to observe directly, it can be easy to miss some important information. For example, I don’t think I have any close friends who identify as Sixes, and my experiences with anxiety (from the perspective of a Four) have lead me to really misunderstand some things about Sixes. I’ve also read some content made by Nines or Sevens that completely misunderstand the core motivations of Fours, which is understandable, because we are on opposite sides of the spectrum. I’ve seen some content made by people who have never met a healthy Three, or an unhealthy One, and they completely misrepresent those types based on those experiences. It’s important not to pass yourself off as too much of an expert, especially when it comes to experiences that you haven’t had.
  3. Someone is wrong. I suppose technically, in the above example, someone is still wrong, but it’s a forgivably unavoidable sort of wrong. Here I’m talking about a more frustrating sort of wrong, where, based on the books a person claims to have read or the experience they claim to have, they really should know better.

I think, of all the dizzying facets of the Enneagram, health and instinctual subtypes bring out these types of disagreements the most. I’ve had to work hard to tease out which type of disagreement is responsible for which contradiction. I’ll be honest: I’m still learning and while I do my best to double check, I may at some point have to come back and correct something I’ve said here.

One of the areas I am still learning about is the instinctual subtypes. Some books on the Enneagram omit them completely, because they don’t feel as integral to the theory. However, in order to use the Enneagram the way most people want to (understanding behavior), you have to study the three instincts. This is why I’m tackling them first, and hopefully if I got something wrong someone will point me right in the comments.

As human animals, we have a biological drive to provide directly for our own needs, to fit in with our social group so that group will take care of our needs, and to form a family (including chosen families, more on that in a second). These needs often compete with each other, and in each of us, one tends to be dominant, one tends to be secondary and one gets the scraps left behind by the other two. When you apply that idea to the Enneagram, you’ll notice that some of those biological drives line up with the core motivations of some types more than others.

  • Sevens, Eights and Nines clash a bit with the social instinct. Social responsibilities and “fitting in” don’t go well with the adventurous lifestyle preferred by Sevens. Eights would like to rule the world, but it’s a tall order and it can be just as satisfying to be monarch of your own little clan, or just go it alone. Nines can be happy hermits and peacemakers within their own chosen family, but world peace has, so far, proved unachievable.
  • Ones, Fives and Sixes all tend to be reserved, focused people who are concerned with questions (ethics, knowledge and security) that are easy to make relevant to both self-preservation and society. These are types that seek some kind of safety and certainty. But relationships make things murky, because no matter what you do, half the choices are up to someone else. In short, relationships equal risk.
  • Twos, Threes and Fours (all the “heart types”) are naturally going to focus on relationships and social connections. But according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s hard to worry about those things when you’re also worried about where your next meal is coming from. The typical style of these types goes poorly with the self-preservation instinct.

But of course, just because the problems of love, society or survival don’t go with your type’s natural mindset, that doesn’t mean you’re exempted from the human work of dealing with them. The types don’t just become helpless and incompetent when confronted with the drive that is a bit out of their wheelhouse. They just learn new behaviors. Sevens, Eights and Nines become more responsible and dutiful, working to take care of the group so the group can take care of them. Ones, Fives and Sixes get more intense. They can only control 50% of a relationship, but by god they will make sure they nail that 50%. Twos, Threes and Fours drop the parts of their acts that get in the way of getting shit done.

Now, here’s where I have to admit to some personal ignorance, as well as some gaps in my research. First, different sources describe the behaviors of the different instinctual subtypes very differently. This seems to go deeper than just different perspectives. I think what’s going on is that there are so many varieties, it’s hard for even an experienced Enneagram coach to thoroughly understand every one of the 27 subtypes. Even if you’ve had a hundred clients, maybe your only Four with a self-preservation instinct was an unhealthy Four with a Three wing, and a healthy Four with a Five wing will express that self-preservation instinct in a completely different way. It’s also possible that there’s something wrong with the theory, and something other theory can do a better job explaining all these variations. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s worth acknowledging.

What’s less controversial is the levels of health. While there are differences in how people explain them, they are mostly superficial, based on jargon rather than real disagreements. All Enneagram experts agree there is no such thing as a good or bad type, just differences in how the basic type is expressed. Every type has a best case scenario where they are incredibly good people, and a worst case scenario where they are self-sabotaging towards themselves and abusive to others. Most people fall somewhere in between, and no one is incapable of growth, just as no one is immune to falling prey to some of their worst sides.

While health looks very different for each type, in general these things are true.

  • Health isn’t about selfishness or self-sacrifice. If you’re stuck in your own needs, you can alienate people who you need and end up hurting yourself in the long run. If you’re fixated on pleasing others, you can make them overly dependent, then let them down when you inevitably burn out. Either way, without balance you are going to self-sabotage.
  • Getting stuck in one way of doing things isn’t healthy. Life throws curveballs at you and no one strategy works all the time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a specialty, but when you keep doing your one trick over and over again, when the situation is clearly calling for you to do something different, you have a problem.
  • Mindfulness is essential to health. All types have their demons, but no type is bound to them. They are all possible to defeat, but only if you are willing to see them for what they are.
  • The flaws that are hardest to get away from are the ones that are slight distortions of your greatest gifts.

You can become an unhealthy version of your type through many avenues. Trauma can play a role, but self-neglect is more important. Trauma’s role is mainly to give you fears that you have to learn to reject, and this can be especially hard when those fears are rooted in childhood. Many common behaviors associated with a particularly Enneagram type aren’t inherent to their core nature at all. Rather, they represent common weak spots that you have in childhood, based on your core type, and unless you have several parents and guardians who really get you, odds are some of them are going to be hit. The same type of trauma can also shape different types differently. An Eight wants to be strong, and if they regularly hear “don’t be a crybaby,” they will suppress their emotions to avoid seeming weak. This can lead to being a hardass who is out of touch with their sadness. A Four, on the other hand, wants to be authentic, and they hear a challenge. They cry harder, or find another way to express their emotions, just to prove that they can’t be bullied out of self-expression. This can lead to the adult belief that they have to be dramatic in order to be heard, or have trouble distinguishing between healthy therapy and just another attempt to invalidate their feelings. The childhood wound is the same, but the overcorrections go in opposite directions.

Side rant: some pop culture Enneagram content creators have said that your type comes entirely from your childhood wounding, essentially portraying the Enneagram as falling on the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate. This is a misunderstanding, mostly because some Enneagram books use “personality” to mean your ego, aka your limited, unhealthy inner voice and average-to-unhealthy behaviors. You are not a One because your parents were overly strict, though you might be an unhealthy One because you haven’t yet dealt with the fact that your parents were overly strict.

The childhood wounding also ties back in with the instinctual drives. Remember, every type has two drives that line up well with their core motivations, and one that doesn’t. Most of the time, people come out of their childhoods with similar wounds based on their core type, and mostly those wounds will center around the drives that line up with those core values. However, once in a while, a kid’s life will be fine tuned to either hurt them in those misaligned instincts, or their parents actively taught them to focus on the instinct that they were inclined to neglect. The result is the countertype: Twos, Threes and Fours with a dominant self-preservation instinct, Sevens, Eights and Nines with a dominant social instinct, and Ones, Fives and Sixes with a dominant intimate instinct.

Countertypes can be a bit of a double-edged sword, when it comes to health. On the one hand, developing focuses that are outside of your normal wheelhouse can be good for you. It can add to that mindfulness and flexibility that is key to developing health, and help you avoid some of the pitfalls associated with your type. On the other hand, it can be a band-aid solution, making you think you’ve handled your demons when really you’re just being controlled by slightly different wounds. It can also make you fearful about the cost of tapping into your true gifts.

So, with all that said, here’s my simplified breakdown of the healthy and unhealthy variations of the nine types, with notes on the countertypes.

  • Ones: at their healthiest, they are advocates for what they believe is right while also maintaining the humility to listen to another point of view. When unhealthy, their rigidity causes them to lose perspective and go to ugly extremes over their own point of view. The self-preservation and social instincts cause them to be reserved, constantly self-monitoring and reluctant to act unless they have double checked their response against their internal moral compass. The intimate instinct causes them to fight hard for relationships, to be the ideal friend and partner, and also to put particular pressure on their loved ones to live up to their ideals.
  • Twos: at their healthiest, they are genuinely kind people who naturally attract a healthy support group. When unhealthy, they engage in “kindsharking” and other forms of emotional manipulation to stop people from leaving them, and can become dangerously out of touch with their own needs. The intimate and social instincts cause them to adopt a “team mom” or “team dad” persona. They like to be the person who other people go to for help. The self-preservation instinct makes them try to attract stronger people who will look after them in exchange for assistance.
  • Threes: at their healthiest, they are engaged in accomplishments that bring real worth to their communities. When unhealthy, they can be corrupt, deceitful con artists. The intimate and social instincts cause them to focus on the polish and the presentation. The self-preservation instinct makes them efficient, willing to shed the dead weight of external appearances to get ahead.
  • Fours: at their healthiest, they are honest, insightful, and exemplify the wounded healer archetype, making use of their own demons to help others through art, teaching or therapy. When unhealthy, they are moody narcissists who attract rescuers and then drag those rescuers down, because actually letting themselves be saved would mean giving up the victim mentality. The intimate and social instincts make them express their emotions dramatically. The self-preservation instinct makes them scrappy, able to put up with a lot of crap and come out grinning.
  • Fives: at their healthiest, their drive for knowledge makes them sought out for their insights. They are incredible teachers, guides, problem solvers and innovators, and willingly share what they know. When unhealthy, they are consumed with the need to be competent in their particular field, knocking down those who might compete or scornfully withdrawing from others. The self-preservation and social instincts drive them to focus on practical, definable, solvable fields of study, where they can come up with a clear answer or obvious skill. The intimate instinct creates an interest in more complex, open ended, psychological issues that can help them keep others in their lives.
  • Sixes: at their healthiest, they are the loyal friend who watches your back but is never afraid to call you on your shit. At worst, they are paranoid and volatile, lacking the discernment to separate their real friends from people who would take advantage of their insecurity and need to belong. Self-preservation and social Sixes are extremely cautious. Intimate Sixes are most often counterphobic – doing the thing that scares them precisely because it scares them.
  • Sevens: at their healthiest, they work to uplift others and bring about positive changes in their own lives. At worst, they are blindly hedonistic, chasing superficial and temporary pleasures regardless of the long-term cost to themselves and others. Self-preservation and intimate Sevens are focused on their own sense of fun and pleasure. They enjoy sharing it with others but move on from those who aren’t feeling it. Social Sevens feel the need to get involved in other people’s lives and become fixers. Fun shared is fun doubled and so if someone is miserable the world is at reduced happiness capacity. Therefore, they must make sure everyone is happy.
  • Eights: at their healthiest, they are solid, reliable and courageous leaders who can be as fierce or as gentle as the situation requires. At their worst, they are aggressive tyrants and bullies who are completely out of touch with their own emotions. Self-preservation and intimate Eights are practical and a bit clannish. They want to save themselves and their chosen tribe. Social Eights want to save the whole world.
  • Nines: at their healthiest, they are able to understand conflicts without being drawn into the drama. When it is time to take a stand they can do so, stubbornly and patiently, refusing to cave but ready to compromise or mediate, fairly. At their worst, they ignore the pain that exists in the world by retreating into fantasies, and confuse these optimistic interpretations with reality. The result is that they neglect themselves and gaslight or subtly victim-blame those who are trying to solve problems (“if you just had a more positive attitude…”). Self-preservation and intimate Nines are private, quiet people who keep their lives simple and minimalist. Social Nines are busy and involved in projects, often trying to fix everyone else’s problems to make sure no one has a reason to fight.

Of course in between the extremes of the behaviors I’ve described there is a whole spectrum of average behaviors that are mixtures of both. These are very quick and dirty shorthands, but hopefully they provide a clear image of the variety that exists when a person is acting within their core types. Things get even more complicated in my third and final post in this series, where we talk about situations where the nine types might act like of the others.

Thank you so much for reading! Please leave likes, comments, all that algorithmic good stuff that helps me crank out the next post sooner.

Explaining the Enneagram Part One: Essential Types

This thing is confusing and I sincerely apologize

There are two aspects to your Enneagram – your basic nature, and the various ways that can be shaped by your environment, especially in early childhood. Too many Enneagram educators don’t explain that well. Part of the problem is that early educators tended to sometimes use “personality” to mean your type and sometimes to mean ego-driven, unhealthy behaviors that you learn as coping mechanisms. They also tended to write very long, very dense books, and of course when people read through those books they skip around to the most interesting parts and skim through the parts with important clarifications. The result is a shortage of content that is accurate but also newbie-friendly.

But in all fairness, describing the Enneagram to a complete beginner hits you with some serious catch-22s.

For starters, talking about the essential nature and the external behavior all in one go tends to result in one getting shortchanged. When the essential nature is neglected, descriptions of the external behavior tend to be confusing, chaotic messes. When the external variation is neglected, the essential nature seems incredibly reductive and stereotypical. At the same time, talking about the two separately is difficult. In Enneagram culture, we often describe types by referencing other types. “Fours act like Twos when they feel stressed and unsupported.” “A social Eight or Seven can easily be mistaken for a type Two.” “A Three with a Two wing is easy to confuse with a Two, because the motivation to act like a Two is so high.” None of those statements make any sense without first understanding what we mean by a Two.

At the same time, describing a pure type Two is like describing a pure triangle. It sounds simple. Triangles are polygons with three sides. Except, we never actually see a pure triangle, with no attributes other than having three sides. We see equilateral triangles, or isoceles triangles, or scalene triangles. We see big triangles and little ones. We see triangles with outlines or filled in, triangles made with wobbly lines drawn in blue crayon, triangles carefully traced in black permanent marker, and triangles sketched in pencil. We can’t visualize a pure triangle. We can only see multiple varieties of triangle and come to realize what they have in common. Similarly, you will never meet a pure, quintessential Two. You will never see a pure Two portrayed in fiction. You will never be a pure Two. Pure types don’t exist in the real world any more than pure triangles.

But of course, we can make it easy to identify the multiplicity of triangles by explaining that triangles are polygons with three sides and three angles. So what are the lines and angles of Enneagram types? A lot of people say they are the core fears and motivations, and this is close. When people make lists of the core motivations of each type (Ones try to be good, Twos try to be loved, Threes try to be successful, etc) they are generally right, but there are a few points that are left murky by those categorizations. For one thing, as humans we do tend to want everything on the list, and what we end up choosing can depend as much on the situation as our normal motivations. Just because you’re a Seven who values fun experiences, that doesn’t mean you’d leave someone dangling off a cliff so you can get to a concert on time. Also, what we think we should value isn’t always what motivates us. Our most primal, ingrained values often don’t come to us in words, but in feelings and almost physical compulsions.

Personally, I think the best place to start is with the three intelligences and the three stances.

I’ll tackle the stances first, just because they’re easy to explain. The stances are preferred modes of getting your needs met. These are attitudes you tend to fall into without even realizing it, like without even knowing what’s at stake you’re already poised to handle it in a particular way.

First is the assertive stance. This applies to people who prefer to be proactive, in positions of leadership and don’t mind being in the spotlight. They tackle their problems head-on and like to make their presence and status known immediately. Typically they identify as extroverts. Types Three, Seven and Eight default to this stance.

Next is the dependent stance. This applies to people who look to be collaborative, cooperative and part of a communal safety net. They can also enjoy positions of leadership, but it’s important to them to have a popular mandate (as opposed to those in the assertive stance, who are confident that if they don’t have it, they can earn it). They might identify as introverts or extroverts, and many will say they’re halfway between. Types One, Two and Six default to this stance.

Finally is the withdrawn stance. This applies to people who take a cautious, look-before-you-leap approach. They are also very aware of the need to protect what matters to them. They are not being inactive; rather, they know how to preserve the most important things by sheltering them within. They can be successful leaders but they are usually thrust into it rather than go seeking it. They typically identify as introverts. Types Four, Five and Nine default to this stance.

When you diagram these, you get the following pretty shape.

The assertive stance is in yellow, the dependent stance in blue, and the withdrawn stance in purple

Enneagram people love symmetrical groups of three threes. Sometimes we have to resign to not getting them, but we can make them we get super excited.

Next are the three intelligences, which correspond to the body, the heart and the mind. This doesn’t mean that all types in the body will be athletes, all types in the heart will be emotionally intelligent or that all types in the mind will be book smart. It’s about what the problems that have the most intense impact on you, and the type of intelligence needed to honestly grapple with those problems. Sometimes types are actually known for being disconnected with the type of intelligence in their triad, at least when they are unhealthy.

Types in the body relate strongly to the needs of the body. They want to be provided for and have those around them provided for as well. When they see someone deprived and are unable to stop this, they feel awful, as anyone would. However, for body types, this goes a layer deeper. Something in their essential nature feels almost called to care for the needs of the body, and having that calling blocked leads to an additional, almost traumatic layer to this particular type of awfulness. The typical reaction to deprivation, especially when it’s unfair, is anger, so the body triad is also called the anger triad because all types need to work through their anger. This is not always obvious from the outside, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Types in the heart triad relate strongly to their emotions and their relationships with others. When types in the heart triad are isolated, rejected or told not to express themselves, it is incredibly painful. Just like with the body triad, nobody likes being rejected or silenced, but for heart types this pain cuts to the bone because it is a rejection of their essential nature. The emotion provoked here is shame, and again this is another name for the triad.

Types in the head triad relate strongly to the mind. Understanding their environment and making predictions is key to their essential nature. This of course makes the mind their greatest tool but also their Achilles’ heel. When the world is confusing or understanding leads to troubling conclusions, the result is anxiety, so you can guess what the other name for this triad is.

The numbers divisible by three are in the center of each triad. They are the most purely influenced by their triad. On either side you have types that are somewhat influenced by the triad next to them. Here’s a picture.

The Intelligence Triads

So, let’s put all of this information together.

Nines are in the center of the body triad, and struggle with anger. However, getting involved in conflicts often leads to intensifying the problem, and as they truly want a fair, balanced solution for everyone, they suppress their anger, often to the point that they lose touch with their own needs. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, stepping back so that there is at least one point of calm in the room when everyone else finally calms down. They are simultaneously passive and stubborn: what they want is to preserve a point of harmony in the room, and they will stop at nothing to guard that fragment of peace.

Ones are in the body triad, bordering heart, and struggle with anger influenced by shame. They work to create more just systems that everyone can live under, and also fend off their undercurrent of shame by holding themselves to strict standards. This is why they take a dependent stance. They need a community to give them a frame of reference in order to check and re-calibrate their moral compass as needed.

Twos are in the heart triad, bordering body, and struggle with shame tinged by anger. By being caregivers, they meet their need for loving relationships while also taking care of the practical needs of those around them. This is why they take a dependent stance. They are happiest when they have someone to do something for. Without this, they feel a little lost.

Threes are in the center of the heart triad, and struggle with shame. They create a shield against their self-doubt and fear of rejection by stockpiling accomplishments that are tangible proof of their own value. This is why they take an assertive stance, not waiting for love but going out and proving that they deserve it.

Fours are in the heart triad, bordering mind, and struggle with shame tinged with anxiety. They cannot escape their fear that love is conditional and superficial, so they challenge their shame by creating a unique identity that puts the shadow self on display. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, trying to understand the darker sides of human nature and the quirks that society sees as unacceptable, refusing to deny their id just to make others comfortable.

Fives are in the mind triad, bordering heart, and struggle with anxiety influenced by shame. They are deeply aware of the mysteries of the universe and the dangers we face when we don’t understand them, as well as the way people reject those who are incompetent or failures. This is why they take a withdrawn stance, trying to fully understand something before going out into the world to make use of it.

Sixes are in the center of the mind triad, and struggle with overpowering anxiety. They genuinely try to foresee every possible threat, trying to construct a perfect safety net. This is why they take a dependent stance, choosing a community to remain loyal to but also questioning the community, essentially rocking the boat to make sure it’s seaworthy.

Sevens are in the mind triad, bordering body, and struggle with anxiety tinged with anger. They seek independence from anything that might cause them pain and distractions from their fears and frustrations. This is why they take an assertive stance, actively seeking fun experiences and new adventures at every turn.

Eights are in the body triad, bordering mind, and struggle with anger and an undercurrent of anxiety. They seek to gain enough power to deal with physical threats and control their space. This is why they take an assertive stance, working to establish dominance and control in order to know from the start that they can protect themselves and their people from harm.

Each type has a type of situation that they are well-equipped to handle, and other situations that are far out of their comfort zone. This is one reason that it’s important not to characterize any one type as “good” or “bad.” All of them exist in response to a world where they are all, at times, needed. Much of the discussion about variety among the types is really just a way of answering the question, “how do the types handle situations that are out of the comfort zones of their core values?” Enneagram literature describes four main factors that help answer this question.

  • Levels of health. When you are mindful of your situation and your own strengths and weaknesses, you can consciously learn to cope better with situations out of your comfort zone, while still protecting your essential gifts. If you simply react, you can find yourself falling into worse and worse habits, returning to the same bad coping mechanisms and making them worse over time. Most people don’t fall into the worst- or best-case extremes, but somewhere in the middle.
  • Wings, which are the types directly next to your type. These can help make up for some of the weaknesses of your core type while still being similar enough to feel comfortable. One of these is usually a secondary personality type that influences your overall personality expression.
  • Stress and Security Lines, which are ways that you can make a paradigm shift to a more distant type on the Enneagram. Sometimes this is an excellent coping strategy, and sometimes it just delays dealing with a problem healthfully. These are also called lines of integration/disintegration. (note: in the standard Enneagram symbol, seen at the top of the post, these are the lines inside the circle)
  • Instinctual subtypes, which describe how your core type responds to different types of stress, depending on whether the stress mainly threatens your sense of place in society, your ability to form a family, or your basic survival. These are less discussed because their impact is fairly subtle compared to the others. However, each type has one kind of stress that produces behaviors that are far from your stereotypical actions, and the type of stress you encountered most at formative points in your childhood does affect your overall adult personality. This means some are countertyped: your inner world matches one type but most people wouldn’t guess it because of your external behavior. I am fascinated by these because I am a countertyped Four (my dominant instinct is for self-preservation).

There is also a new theory going around called tritypes, which essentially proposes that everyone has a dominant type in each of the three intelligences. Your core type is your dominant type in your dominant intelligence, with the other two acting as secondary personality types. It isn’t fully accepted by the whole Enneagram community though, and I have some questions about whether the tritypes are a real thing, or just the result of people not understanding instinctual variants or stress and security lines. On the other hand, they might be a simpler, more accurate way to describe some of the more complicated variations. The Enneagram is a system that is open to evolution over time.

My next post will talk about variations in health and the instinctual subtypes, and I’ll wrap up by describing the wings and the stress/security lines. This means my approach is almost the opposite of the usual method of explaining the Enneagram, but I think it’s a lot more efficient and newbie-friendly to explain it this way.

Until then, thank you for reading!

Bad Enneagram Content

Imagine your Dad walks up to you and says “I’m worried for the calendar. It’s days are grouped into segments of 28 to 31.” He stares at you, and you force a laugh, then spend hours afterwards wondering if that was a joke. It had the structure of a joke. He told it like it was a joke. Was there some obvious point he was getting at, or a pun that you missed? Then, after thinking about it way too long, you realize, “numbered! Dad meant to say the calendar’s days are numbered!”

That’s how I feel after reading 98% of popular Enneagram content online, and I’m going to rant about it.

The Enneagram is a personality system, kind of like Myers-Briggs except not at all. Myers-Briggs was developed by a mother-daughter team and based loosely on Jungian psychology, while the Enneagram just sort of evolved after a bunch of religious philosophy students in Chile threw ideas at the wall like so much half-cooked pasta, until they stuck together in this shape.

Then an anthropology student joined their school and was like, “has anyone copyrighted this? Is it kind of an open source public domain situation? Cool. I’ll… be right back.” He took it to a community of psychologists and counselors back in the States, all of whom tweaked it a bit more, and fifty years later it’s all over Instagram.

Unlike the orderly grid of Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram is chaotic and messy because no solely invented it and everyone has their own little twists and interpretations. Broadly speaking, it groups people into nine types based on their core values. Ones seek morality, Twos seek relationships, Threes seek achievements, Fours seek personal authenticity, Fives seek understanding, Sixes seek security, Sevens seek experiences, Eights seek strength and Nines seek harmony. (See here for a more detailed description of the types.) Obviously, all of these are good things to want, but life rarely lets us have all of them at once. When you’re deprived of one of those things, which one really guts you, regardless of whether or not you think it “should” be the most important to you? That probably corresponds to your type.

The rest of the Enneagram is about how people completely misapply those core values and make their lives a mess that is neither what they wanted or expected. It’s fun, especially if you like sitting up at 2:30 AM thinking, “I keep trying to piece together an identity made of hobbies and hairstyles and traumatic memories, but the reason I don’t know who I am is because the question itself has no meaning. The self is fluid and all attempts to contain it are but illusions. Who am I? Who is anybody????”

At least that’s what it’s like if you’re a type 4. Seriously, it’s good shit.

Anyway, I was into it way back before it was internet semi-popular, and I’m actually glad to see it getting more love. I’m glad to see it gaining popularity because A. it’s a good system and deserves to be better known and B. now I have more people to talk to about it.

I just, you know, wish the jokes were better.

I think the core of the problem is that people are rushing the jokes. So much of the content is clearly coming from people who built a platform off of Myers-Briggs jokes, then tapped that well dry, and now they’re looking to keep things going so they’re just copypasting Enneagram types into their old joke formats. This doesn’t work. The two systems talk about completely different things and have strengths and weaknesses that are exactly opposite each other.

For example, the format “how each Myers-Briggs type reacts to [situation]” works great, because Myers-Briggs is based off of observable behaviors, decision making and communication style. This means you can make some weirdly specific predictions about how an ENTJ will react to a situation, because if a person doesn’t react like an ENTJ, they don’t consider themselves an ENTJ. But the Enneagram isn’t based on behaviors at all. It’s based on motivations. If you ever read an Enneagram book, they will almost never say, “Fours do this” or “Eights act like that.” They will always qualify statements, saying things like “when stressed, Fours tend to do one of the following things” or “as they become more healthy, Eights tend to channel their anger in these ways” and so on. This makes the Enneagram a better system for self-development and personal exploration. If you evolve as a person, your Myers-Briggs type might change, but your Enneagram won’t. So naturally, when you start a joke with “how each Enneagram type reacts to [situation]” you have a big problem. Half your audience won’t know enough about the Enneagram to find it funny. The other half won’t find it funny because they know the Enneagram doesn’t work like that. Sure, you might catch a sliver of people who know a bit about the Enneagram but not enough to realize how inaccurate your video/gif/meme is, but they will either learn enough to no longer find your content funny, or just lose interest in the Enneagram because they think it’s all paper thin stereotypes.

Similarly, trying to predict mundane daily behavior based on the Enneagram is never going to be all that funny or satisfying. The Enneagram doesn’t affect things like your sleep schedule or what streaming service you will prefer. It can affect bigger things, like your preference of partners and your ideal job, but even there people can miss the mark. I saw a post on the nightmare job of each Enneagram type. A couple of their ideas were pretty good, but mostly they just picked jobs that would be awful for anyone (nobody dreams of being a toll booth attendant). Then, for Fives, they decided the worst job would be an event planner. This struck me as stereotyping all Fives as lonely, eccentric academics, and the more I thought about it, the less sense it made.

The core of a Five is a desire to gain knowledge and understanding that is useful. They fear being incompetent, so they like to have some skill to fall back on. Social skills don’t operate by the same kind of regular rules as botany or combustion engines or the Dewey Decimal system, so Fives tend to be a little uncomfortable in social situations. They often deal with this awkwardness by developing a skill that puts them back in their comfort zone. They might study fashion so the popular kids have to consult them as an expert, or get really good at bowling and join a club. Event planning is a great example of this kind of skill. It takes all the unpredictable parts of social interactions and turns them into skills that can be mastered; cooking, decoration making, guest lists, dietary restrictions, schedules for setup and post-party cleanup. Then, when the party is happening, they can use their event planner duties as an excuse to take a break from the socializing and avoid getting overwhelmed. I’ll bet some of the best event planners are Fives.

I also see a lot of content that’s based on the premise that some types are bad and some types are good. This one is like watching someone say, “I am the best omelette maker. Watch me make an omelette!” and then smash a carton of eggs with the back of a frying pan and walk away proudly, leaving you to clean up the kitchen. What I’m saying is this is a total failure to understand the tools you were given or their proper end result.

We tend to be taught that being, say, ambitious is always bad, while wanting to be loved is always good. So, when Threes are characterized as the ambitious, success and achievement oriented type, they must be bad, right? And Twos want to be loving caregivers, so they must be good. But there’s a difference between wanting love and having a healthy relationship. Unhealthy Twos are often emotionally abusive. They do favors that weren’t asked for and then guilt trip people who ask for boundaries, because they perceive that as an attempt to leave them. They can gaslight people by saying, “I didn’t do that bad thing. Only bad people do bad things, and I’ve done so many favors for you, how could I possibly do that thing?” This isn’t how all Twos act. It’s just a way that some Twos act, when they don’t have their shit together at all. Similarly, the corrupt executives who put profit ahead of human well-being are not representative of Threes, just unhealthy Threes. Healthy Twos aren’t good people because they value love, but because they understand that the only love that will satisfy them is the kind that is freely given. Healthy Threes recognize that it’s the joy of accomplishing something real that satisfies them, along with being admired by people whose good opinion is genuinely worth having. Their desire for success motivates them to create wonderful things that help everyone.

Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is Healthy Threedom personified

This is what makes the Enneagram so cool. It teaches counterintuitive ideas, like how fighting too hard for the thing you want can be exactly what stops you from getting it, or how the people-pleasers and the advantage-takers both tend to end up miserable for similar reasons. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook, but it also gives you a framework to see the best in everyone.

In conclusion, here’s some tips for making Enneagram content that is genuinely entertaining.

  • Go in-depth on one type, rather than making a post that covers all nine. I already laid out why you can’t say “How Each Enneagram Type Acts In Quarantine” and expect it to be good. But try making a post the equivalent length about just one Enneagram type, and try describing a spectrum of healthy and unhealthy behaviors. It’s going to be more accurate and therefore more funny. I’ve also seen content like “Gift Buying Guide for a Six” or “Ten Behaviors That Fours Will Relate To” and they are so much better than those that try to cover all nine types.
  • Be more abstract. The Enneagram is a lot less precise and literal than Myers-Briggs, and the flip side is that it’s much more poetic and philosophical. So go nuts with the creative interpretations. Which trees symbolize the strengths of each type in the Enneagram? Which dog breed? Can you make a soundtrack for each type’s coming-of-age-during-high-school movie?
  • Type fictional characters. The Enneagram and storytelling go together beautifully, because motivation is absolutely central to both. It’s not recommended to type other people in real life, because you never know what’s really going on in someone else’s heart, but fictional characters are designed to let us in on the intimate secrets of their life, so have at it! The worst thing you can do is mistype a fictional character, and I’m betting they won’t mind.
  • Poke fun at the Enneagram itself. It’s heavy and a tad pretentious and is basically six different religious philosophies standing on each other’s shoulders in a trenchcoat pretending to be psychology. I love it and I think it’s useful, but I’m also firmly a member of the “there’s no better way to show love than to poke fun” school. It’s why Galaxy Quest is objectively the best Star Trek movie.

And that seems like a good note to end on. I apologize for not having a very thorough explanation of the Enneagram, but I figured this title will mostly draw people who are fairly familiar with the system anyway, and it does take a long time to explain properly. However, I will be posting a better explanation soon, along with more Enneagram related content. But for now, thank you for reading, and take care!

J. K. Rowling and the Complex Gender Narrative

So, J. K. Rowling wrote an extremely weird and rambly essay about how people shouldn’t call her transphobic, just because she doesn’t support trans people’s rights to have a public space to safely pee. She said she’s been cyberbullied for liking the posts of some TERFs, which, for the record, is awful. You shouldn’t handle transphobes by calling them cunts and bitches who should die in a gutter. You should handle them by accurately labeling their statements as misinformed and bigoted… which J. K. Rowling finds equally upsetting.

Sigh.

I’m not going to go over the issues that people have already covered. Here’s a post that unpacks the emotional manipulation and transphobic dogwhistling in J. K. Rowling’s essay. Here’s some more resources for people who want accurate information to counteract the misinformation in her piece, either for themselves or to share with others.

Have fun!

I have inserted a Creative Commons transgender symbol, because people like blog posts that have pictures in them

The most interesting thing about the essay, at least for me, is that J. K. Rowling claims to have done her research and listened, and is still very transphobic in her overall stances on gender. This is a perfect illustration of a human flaw that we don’t discuss often enough, when we talk about education. It’s easy to change somebody’s mind when you share a fundamental narrative, and just disagree on a few details. It’s harder when a new set of facts forces someone to analyze the story of their life. Sometimes the education works, when people are willing to do the inner work to accept a more complicated worldview. Sometimes, people just cherry pick the fragments of information that they like, and close their minds to the rest.

Feminism contains many narratives. Some feminist narratives are compatible with trans activism and some are not. This internal conflict is making it difficult for people to figure out how to be good feminist allies and good trans allies at the same time. Hopefully J. K. Rowling’s work will help people understand this, and talk about it more openly.

I’m going to start with Simone de Beauvoir, who J. K. Rowling specifically mentions as an important influence on her own gender identity. Simone de Beauvoir was an important feminist thinker who drew people’s attention to the distinction between biological sex and gender as a social construction. She called women “the second sex,” defined in opposition to men. Her philosophy is often summed up by her statement that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

This doesn’t fit well with the idea of gender identities; that someone can have an internal sense of their own gender that aligns with neither social norms nor their biological sex. I don’t understand the neurological basis for gender identities. We are still trying to figure out what causes gender identities and gender dysphoria. There might be several overlapping causes, some of which are purely biological and some of which are more cultural. All I know is that, if you’re a cis woman who is more complex than the Victorian Ideal of Womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy is a fantastic guide to self-actualization. But, if you’re like me (born with female biology, not particularly “tomboyish” as a child, but plagued with a persistent sense that you were supposed to be born a boy) it doesn’t work. I don’t invalidate the personal journey of women like J. K. Rowling, but I complicate the narrative, by indicating that there might be more dimensions to the world of gender.

Trans people also complicate the narrative by sharing information. Sometimes I feel like an undercover agent; a shy, sensitive boy sent to see what women experience, from birth to the age of twenty, and share my stories with both sides of the battle-of-the-sexes. I bring stories of sexual harassment, sexist gaslighting and menstruation to spaces where cis men didn’t expect to have their sexist assumptions called out. At the same time, I bring to feminist spaces an uncomfortable look at the weird privileges of being “the weaker sex.”

Being male isn’t like being white. Racists don’t tell white people that they can’t cry or dance or learn to care for a baby because “that’s what Black people do.” But that’s exactly what happens to men, and it takes a psychological toll.

The patriarchy is less like the Dursleys, spoiling one child and sticking the other under the stairs. It’s more like Thanos, pitting two siblings against each other and torturing them both for any failure to conform to his expectations. Gamora might have privilege and favoritism over Nebula, but he’s a monster to both of them, and if either is going to fully recover they need to put aside their battle and escape together. I guess in my Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor, trans people are the whole rest of the crew; we can’t have the conversation between the two for them, but we create a third space, full of so many complicated narratives and personal journeys that escape from the conflict is possible.

Ok, abandoning the gender diversity – Guardians of the Galaxy metaphor now, because I need to get into a third way that trans people complicate the narrative around gender, and it relates directly to bathrooms.

Bye bye, intergalactic gender metaphor

The hot-button issue around trans people is about bathrooms and changing areas. What is rarely questioned in these debates is why we separate bathrooms by gender in the first place. It wasn’t like a support group or activist organization. The bathroom is not where people are rallying to subvert the patriarchy. It’s just where you go to pee or poop, which everybody needs to do regardless of politics or activism. We separate bathrooms by gender because we’re sexist.

In Victorian times, around the invention of modern plumbing, bathrooms in public places were exclusively for men, which was an obstacle to women in the workplace. Gradually, as factories began to employ more and more women, smaller bathrooms for women were set up as a compromise. At the time they were a step forward, but there’s still a lot of institutional discrimination built in. For example, according to modern codes you can still just assume there will be less women working at your cool laboratory of sciences, make a smaller women’s room, and inconvenience your female workers for decades to come. Here are some articles if you want to read more of the history. Each article all has its own slant, but they all agree that the separation started with an ideological belief that men and women should be in separate spheres, because they aren’t equal. One is strong but predatory, the other is virtuous but weak, and the two must be kept separate and unequal. Sex segregated bathrooms were not a goal of feminists, but a compromise with an unflinchingly sexist society.

Doesn’t it strike anyone else as weird that trans-exclusionary feminists and far right-wing conservative men (many of whom have personally been accused of sexual assault) are agreeing that men will use gender neutral or trans-inclusive bathrooms to abuse women? Essentially, they are both agreeing that men are inherently predatory and women are right to be scared of them. This is a deeply rooted narrative in our society. Men are strong, but dangerous. Women are innocent, but weak and vulnerable. This is the patriarchy talking.

The reality is that men are perfectly capable of self-control and moral behavior. Furthermore, sexual violence is not as gendered an act as we thought; research has shown that for years we have been under-counting both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual assault. Again, the root of this undercounting is a patriarchal narrative about sex and power that was designed to control the behavior of women. Sexual abuse is not a normal male behavior. It is the abnormal behavior of certain violent and abusive humans. I don’t think pointing that out sets gender equality back.

On the contrary, it strips away the excuse that Donald Trumps, Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys have hidden behind for generations. I love that the response of so many men to the pussy-grabbing statement was, “no, that isn’t locker room talk. I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms and I didn’t talk like that with my male friends, because that’s a shitty way to talk about women.” Normalizing abuse encourages abuse. Shifting the narrative from “boys will be boys” to “most boys are not like that, you have no excuse” is good.

I also get how it’s scary, especially for an older generation of women. But scary isn’t the same thing as harmful. Holding onto ideas that normalize abuse and marginalize gender minorities is harmful.

Balancing Criticism, Social Responsibility and Creativity

(I wrote a post with a similar title many years ago, and while I liked the overall message I thought my examples were weak. So here’s my second attempt.)

Criticism stresses me out. And the thing that stresses me out most isn’t when someone convinces me that I did a bad thing in my writing, or that something I enjoyed has a problematic element. No, then everything is fine, because I can fix the bad writing/acknowledge that some of the things I enjoy are not perfect. The thing that really scares me is when I hear somebody’s argument about why a thing is bad, I listen carefully to all their points, and I truly, honestly, do not agree.

Is that weird? Is that just me? I’m going to go ahead with the assumption that it isn’t, because otherwise there’s no point to this post.

The first thing that scares me is the way internet criticism can turn shitty. The way people attack things that I love and make it seem like everyone who likes it is Irredeemably Horrible is stomach churning. But the older I get, the smaller that worry gets. For one thing, I’ve realized that if the only people who argue a point are mean-spirited trolls, it’s probably not a good point. Not that mean-spirited trolls can’t sometimes make a good point, but if a point makes sense to compassionate, thoughtful people, they will make it in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

The second thing is the fear that I might be wrong, and not realize it. That’s a more existential kind of fear. It’s harder to push through, because no matter how I look at it, I’m not infallible. I’ve changed my mind about many things, and I don’t believe that current me is the magically flawless one who will never have to change again.

To be more specific, I am afraid that my current, imperfect self will put some things out into the world that are bad. That influence people in a bad way. I write in no small part because I love social justice and I believe stories play a powerful role in shaping how we live our lives. Put all that together, and it’s possible that something I write will, someday, influence someone for the worse.

In this way, the very thing that inspires me to write can also shut down my creativity.

I’m not writing this to describe the way I magically banish my fear. That doesn’t exist. I’m human and uncertain and I am kind of glad that I’m afraid enough to take my writing seriously. I’m writing about how I do my best not to let the fear get to the point where I can’t write anymore.

Use Longer-form Social Media For Writing Resources

Simply relying more on longer-form media has reduced my anxiety a lot. By that, I mean I focus on blogs, vlogs and podcast episodes over Tumblr or Twitter. In particular, Twitter’s structure is the enemy of nuance and context. It’s fine for promotions and goofing off, but when it comes to social commentary, it pushes people to over-generalize and sound quippy. And while I think satire is an important part of social commentary, there’s a difference between satire and flippant put-downs.

Twitter and Tumblr also favor a piling-on phenomena, leading you to feel that a lot of people feel very strongly about an issue, simply because enough of them could get to a punchline in two sentences or less. So if you come across an issue that is oversimplified, you can also feel bombarded with social pressure to join in with the oversimplification. And if you push back and criticize, you too will lack the space to give your disagreements respectful context and nuance, making it easy to build a virtual war between two armies of strawmen.

In contrast, when I watch a Youtube video or listen to a podcast where somebody disagrees with me, they have opportunities to fully express their point of view, and I have time to make my response equally thoughtful. This actually makes me more likely to seek out diverse viewpoints. On short-form social media, I’m scared of attack because there’s nothing to do but attack. When I have space to consider and discuss, I can, you know, do those things.

It’s Okay to Not Talk About Everything

It seems like these days, if you’re going to have a public presence (and thanks to social media, who doesn’t have a public presence?), you have to comment on everything. “I don’t know” is often treated as a kind of cowardice. It shouldn’t be. Unless something falls under your area of expertise, it should be fine to take time to consider before publicly stating an opinion, and maybe not comment at all.

This especially goes for writing stories or articles that explore important social issues. I have seen writers, especially fiction writers, attacked for not exploring this issue or not representing people of this identity. To be fair, occasionally this is valid. “Research the story you choose to write” is a completely reasonable standard to set, which is why it’s fine to point fingers at someone who sets their story in 1920s Harlem without writing any Black characters. But it’s different to pick out a writer who has stayed in their lane, and criticize them for not straying from it. Accurate information and respectful representation both take time and effort, and there’s too much out there to discuss for anybody to tackle it all. So why not focus on topics that you either have personal experience in, or care enough about to put in the work and research?

Remember the Single Story

I think this should be required viewing for any writer. Here’s a link that includes a transcript.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The Danger of a Single Story”

When I’m scared that I might write something bad, it’s encouraging to think that there are other people out there who can say the things that I can’t. The important thing is to have a healthy writing and reading community, where people are putting out their own perspectives and taking in those of others. Everyone’s life is an incomplete window on a big reality.

At the root of most bad faith criticisms, you find the assumption that somebody, somewhere, should be able to write a perfect story that will save the world from our oppressive patriarchal heritage forever. No one will spell that out, of course. Anyone can see that it’s an absurd proposition. But when critics, whether on mainstream publications or a personal social media accounts, take a smug attitude the moment they find a minor flaw in a popular piece of media, that’s the implicit message. If you assume everyone’s perspective is flawed, you will make your minor criticisms constructive and balanced, saving your disgust for works that are truly irredeemable.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think the most important thing is to check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back.

As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.

Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading

Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

How I Name My Characters, Part Three: Using Names to Serve the Story

So, if names that fit too well distract readers, why even try to match names to characters? One reason is that a good name can enhance a story beautifully. Making good art isn’t about avoiding risks. It’s about taking risks, and learning which ones pay off. While a bad name can be ungainly, and weigh a story down, a good name can accentuate a story’s strongest aspects. And that doesn’t just apply to characterization, though that’s certainly a good place to start.

Character

The first impulse, when naming a character, is to find something that goes with their personalities. That’s not a bad impulse. Some of the most memorable characters have names that neatly match their most noteworthy traits. Scarlett O’Hara, for example. The color red in nature either signals something highly alluring, or extremely dangerous. The shade we call scarlet is especially intense, yet sophisticated, all of which sum up the power of Scarlett’s character.

What some writers don’t realize, however, is that a name that contrasts with a character can be just as effective. Consider John le Carre’s most famous protagonist, George Smiley. He’s not smiley. He’s not even slightly happy. In fact, he’s fairly morose. But the the interesting thing about him is how well he keeps it under the surface. He has no shortage of reasons to be actively, dramatically depressed, but he isn’t. He minds his own business, does his duty, ignores the various jabs people send his way, and, when life gets the better of him, lets it out with quintessentially British subtlety. The name Smiley draws attention to the depths below his facade. The problem with subtle, even keeled characters is that they can feel like an uninspired author’s default, rather than a character’s honest choice. Smiley’s name helps him avoid this fate, by drawing attention to what he is not.

Contrasting names are different from arbitrary names. Near and far are opposites, because they both exist on a spectrum of distance. Neither is the opposite of green or apple. In the last post, I talked about How I Met Your Mother has Lily, a feisty mother bear whose namesake flower normally symbolizes gentleness and purity, and, Barney, a suave player with the least suave name imaginable. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable to name them Jill and Aaron.

I think it’s also worth noting that a fitting name can feel generic when it corresponds to a trait the character shares with nearly everyone. One character on 30 Rock is named Frank. Frank arguably fits his name; he always speaks his mind. But so does everybody else. The cast has a nice pile of entertaining quirks and flaws between them. Bashfulness isn’t one of them.

Setting

I’ve already mentioned in both previous posts that you should choose a name that fits the setting. Every society has naming conventions. When you’re writing in a real world setting, a little research into these adds authenticity, especially if you’re willing to use names that are decidedly unfashionable nowadays, as they do on Downton Abbey. When your setting is invented, it’s a good idea to come up with a few rules for names, as well as guidelines for how class, gender, occupation or ethnicity tends to affect people’s choices. It enlivens your worldbuilding and can also communicate the values of your culture. The Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica and Lord of the Rings all do this very well.

Because who we are is often shaped by our environment, this is a great place to go for names, in order to avoid excess of names that sound too much like the namesake. It can also be a quick way to communicate conflicts between cultures, or between an individual and their culture.

  • The scene where Finn is named in The Force Awakens, establishes the difference between the First Order, which sees people as tools, and Poe Dameron, who refuses to dehumanize Finn with a serial code.
  • The book Good Omens (which everyone should read) has, among other things, a Satanic nun mistaking an ordinary Englishman for an ambassador, and giving him the Antichrist to raise. She attempts to convince him to give the baby a traditional name, like Damien or Wormwood. He goes with Adam.
  • Even a subtle change can speak volumes about a character, as in Anne of Green Gables, where she insists that if she must have a name as plain as Anne, it absolutely must be spelled with an e.

But when a name completely breaks from established rules, it can be jarring. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup explains that it’s tradition on their village to give babies undesirable names (this is based on a real tradition in many cultures; exact explanations vary, but it’s sort of like telling actors to break a leg). If a character isn’t named for some bodily function or piece of refuse, it’s something that sounds just as bad, like Stoick or Hoark. Then, there’s Astrid. It’s not a word, it doesn’t sound gross, and it literally means “beautiful goddess.” Every time someone said her name, it reminded me that this isn’t a real place, but a human invention whose creators can ignore the rules at their convenience. Either that, or her parents hated her.

It also weakened the character. Astrid is great, and I loved her, but there is an obvious reason why they didn’t follow the rules. She’s the love interest, and they didn’t want to disrupt her beautiful image with an ugly name. Her name is a signal that, because she’s the pretty girl, she could be badass, but they weren’t going to let her be injured or dirty her up. It was more important to preserve her desirable image than make her someone who organically fit the world. I think they should have gotten over that. They could have come up with something that sounds beautiful, but fits the established rules of the setting, like Bramblethorn or Stormcloud. Or they could have just embraced the comedy gold of having Hiccup breathlessly talk about the most beautiful girl in the village; Crabgrass.

Plot

Here we get into tricky territory. As I explained in the last post, naming characters for which tropes they fit in the narrative just draws the audience’s attention to cliches, not originality. Foreshadowing in names can also be hard to do with real subtlety. Nobody was surprised that Remus Lupin was a werewolf. But, as I said, writing is sometimes about taking risks.

I just finished reading Warm Bodies, and I loved it. If you look closely, several characters have names that reference Romeo and Juliet; not just R for Romeo and Julie for Juliet, but also M for Mercutio and Perry for Paris. These names work because they are buried. They make sense in-story, they are surrounded by names that don’t reference Shakespeare, and the plot is willing to break the formula just often enough that the parallels aren’t dead giveaways. I knew the hints were there, but I was so swept up in the story I forgot about them until I closed the book. It was perfect.

Misleading audiences is also perfectly good use of a name. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho relies on twists, and those twists are still emotionally effective when you know what’s coming, because of how much he commits, on every level, to luring you into a false sense of security. This goes all the way down to Norman Bates. Look at that. He is practically named “normal man.” Bastard.

These two techniques can also be used to play off of each other. In the original Star Wars series, we first meet Han Solo… who always travels with a partner, and comes back to help the rebels in the end. Solo is the image he tries to project, but the man inside is more complicated than that. This red herring created a smokescreen over other hints; the alliteration of Luke and Leia, or the fact that Vader is Dutch for father.

Theme

This is a the hardest one to use well. Most of the time the only authors who even try are attempting to make a painfully obvious allegory, as in Pilgrim’s Progress. And hey, if allegory is your dream, there’s a market for that. You do you, more power to you, etc etc.

That said, I can think of two cases where a writer pulled thematic names off. First is Hope, from the series Jessica Jones. I don’t even know how to explain this one without spoiling the entire show. All I can say is that she absolutely symbolizes Hope, but the writers were willing to do things with the idea of hope that I’ve never seen before. Second is Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, the comic strip. Both protagonists were named for philosophers who had a cynical view of human nature. John Calvin came at it from a religious perspective, and Thomas Hobbes from a political one. In between skipping school and making killer mutant snow goons, Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time walking through the woods, talking about human nature and everything we as a species just can’t get right. Two things make the references work. First, it’s not like the strip is named Plato and Nietszche. The references are a bit obscure and the names sound like real names. Second, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t parroting their namesakes. At most, they are interested in similar questions. They are their own people, having their own conversations, and instead of lecturing us they are being bewildered along with us.

The worst thematic name I could think of was Veil from The Outcast of Redwall. Redwall is a series of animal novels that I loved as a kid, but their biggest weakness, in my recollection, was the simplistic species based morality. Mice, moles, otters, badgers and hares were always good. Rats, stoats, ferrets and foxes were always bad. In The Outcast of Redwall, a ferret, is raised by the good creatures of Redwall. The book keeps acting as if it’s about to discuss nature vs. nurture, but then slams the door on the question with some pointless act of cruelty. His name is an early example of this simplistic approach. Supposedly, his name is Veil because there’s a veil over his past and his future, but early on somebody points out that veil is an anagram of both evil and vile. Oh dear, what an omen! The author never really wanted to examine the question of morality and upbringing, and the name just draws attention to that.

You can think of words in a story existing on a spectrum, from the little words that usher the readers along without calling attention to themselves (the, said, it, come, was) to the ones that pop out and define the story. On this spectrum, the words that call the most attention to themselves will be the names. Audiences will actually put in work to remember your character’s names, so they can keep track of the people driving the narrative. It’s worthwhile to put some thought into them.

How I Name My Characters, Part Two: Character Names That Don’t Sound Like Character Names

In the first part, I talked about where names get their associations. Next time I’m going to talk about various ways to use those associations to enhance a story. But first, I wanted to share advice on making sure those names don’t sound so literary that they distract readers from the story. An arbitrary name isn’t nearly as fun or evocative as one that really suits a character, but one that fits too well draws attention to the fact that a writer constructed this world.

Beware of Tropes

As I mentioned in the last post, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted. It often works very well to give your characters a name that matches up with some, but not all, of who they are. There are many directions you can take this, but the absolute worst is to name a character for the trope they best fulfill. Nothing screams “this is a story” like naming everyone for where they fit into the narrative.

There are three exceptions to the avoiding tropes rule; one-scene characters who will exist just long enough to need a name but then disappear from the story, stories with a comic, self-aware tone, and characters who initially fit a trope but then subvert those expectations. Jane the Virgin uses both of the last two criteria. Her love triangle is between Michael, the stable boyfriend of two years, and Rafael, the rich playboy who broke her heart. Except, as the series goes on, Michael gets increasingly hard to trust, and Rafael seems more genuine and pure in his intentions. This role reversal combined with the loving-parody-of-a-telenovela vibe makes the names perfect.

And if I’m totally off base, I’m only halfway through season one, so don’t tell me, okay?

Don’t. Tell. Me.

But that said, there’s a difference between an homage and a replay. Several years ago the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow got my hopes up. It promised to be tribute to classic 1940s adventure stories, and it was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really anything else. It was a restitched series of familiar tropes and twists; it had no heart of it’s own. The names they chose had the same problem. Joe Sullivan, Polly Perkins, Dex, Totenkopf. Which of those is  the reporter girlfriend, the heroic pilot, the villain, the sidekick?

Yup. You got it.

Don’t do that. Write characters, and name them for who they are as people, not who they are as pieces on the chess board.

Be Aware of the In-Story Reason

I loved Juno, both the film and the character. But I must admit, it always irked me that she had such a conveniently quirky name, to go with her character. We didn’t get to know her parents very well, but they didn’t seem like the type of people to pick a name like Juno. They seemed like the sorts to name their girl Hailey or Kimberly. The quirky name for a quirky protagonist thing worked a lot better in Easy A, where Olive’s parents are named Rosemary and Dill, and it’s quickly established that the only thing they like more than a joke is a running joke (her little brother’s name is Chip).

Names say things about the person who picked them. They reflect hopes, expectations, values and personal tastes. When a character’s name doesn’t sound like the kind of thing their parent (or other namer) would have chosen, it points back to the author.

If your heart is set on a type of name that your character’s in-story namer would not have chosen, there are no shortages of ways out. In both fiction and real life, people change or adjust their names all the times. Whether they choose an appropriate nickname, like Jo from Little Women, or they are given a name that reflects how others see them, like Fat Charlie in Anansi Boys, or whether there’s a subtle consensus to reshape the name into something more appropriate, like Pepper from Good Omens, it’s a perfect way to make an on the nose name sound natural. It feels right because it happens fairly often in real life, as well. Names shape people’s expectations, and when those expectations don’t fit, their bearers often seek something more appropriate.

Vary Why They Fit

As I mentioned last time, names are multifaceted, and characters are multifaceted, and names can fit in ways that are unexpected. A perfect way to make names feel appropriate without being contrived is to have them fit different characters for different reasons.

One of my all-time favorite shows didn’t do well with this; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, Cordelia, Willow, Xander… each name fits perfectly, on an individual level. But they all line up with their namesake’s personalities so well that, collectively, it’s clear they have been named by some omniscient author. Especially when the British librarian introduces himself as Giles. Later on, as characters evolved and others were introduced, this problem gradually went away.

On the other hand, How I Met Your Mother got this right from the start. First, three characters have names that fit, both on the level of sound and meaning.

  • Ted, the old fashioned romantic nerd. It conjures up images of your old, safe stuffed bear, and that’s the kind of lover he tries to be; the kind who makes you dinner and always returns your calls right away. As a diminutive, it also indicates that he has some growing up to do before he’s ready for The One.
  • Marshall, the gentle giant. Its soft sounds give Ted a serious challenge for most huggable name contest. At the same time, the law enforcement gives it a little backbone, and he does have a surprisingly tough and mature side, when needed.
  • Robin, the mercurial beauty. She is feminine, but with an androgynous streak, and like her namesake bird she sometimes needs to fly away.

But then you have Barney and Lily. A lily is a delicate flower, commonly used as a symbol of purity. Barney conjures up either a hay chewing hick or a purple dinosaur. Lily’s personality is half den mother, half scrappy hellion. Barney is a smooth city player.

These two names that break the pattern have an effect of naturalizing the entire cast. What coincidental appropriateness? Clearly we are just five people, named by five sets of people who had no idea how we would turn out. And sure, some of us did end up like our names, and that happens. Nature and nurture and all that. But sometimes you get a wild card, and look at us. Wild cards. Totally didn’t end up anything like our parents thought. Nope, our names and our personalities have as little to do with each other as you can imagine.

It’s a big lie, by the way. Barney and Lily’s names still signal something; they signal it by contrast, rather than emphasis. But I’ll get into that in the next installment.